By THOMAS BEAUMONT, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — After two Deep South losses, Mitt Romney is intensifying his campaign efforts in the economically challenged Midwest — a friendly region for him — in hopes of regaining his front-runner's momentum when Illinois holds its Republican presidential primary Tuesday.
But the race for Illinois and its cache of 54 delegates is tighter than might have been expected, thanks to Rick Santorum's recent rise in opinion polls. And President Barack Obama, the Democrat they both hope to oust, is making his presence felt, too, in his adopted home state.
Romney is clearly mindful of the threat from Santorum. He and his allies are pouring money into the state, near Michigan where he grew up and his father was governor. Romney won the Michigan primary on Feb. 28.
Logistically, he's also looking to take advantage of Santorum's failure to get the signatures needed to ensure he's on the ballot statewide in Illinois.
And Romney's on the attack.
"We are not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight if we nominate an economic lightweight," the former Massachusetts governor said Friday during an early morning stop in suburban Rosemont near Chicago. The criticism, focusing on the economy, which is the voters' No. 1 concern, was a one-two punch against both President Barack Obama and Republican Santorum. "I am an economic heavy weight, and I know how to fix this economy," Romney declared.
Romney also began airing a television advertisement in Illinois accusing Santorum, a former two-term senator, of having little understanding of the economy. And he began airing a radio ad pointing to Santorum's crushing defeat for re-election in 2006. Santorum lost his seat in Pennsylvania to Democrat Bob Casey by 18 percentage points.
Santorum, just back from campaigning in Puerto Rico for Sunday's primary there, sounded confident despite Romney's heavy organizational and advertising edge — and unconcerned about the criticism of his economic acumen.
Appearing at a Hispanic grocery store in Prospect Heights, Ill., he shot back at his rival.
"I believe in a light touch of government where Governor Romney believes in a very heavy touch," Santorum said. "So he is an economic government heavyweight."
Obama was fundraising and campaigning in Illinois, too, on Friday and taking his own shots at the Republicans — for negative campaigning.
Noting he was in "the land of Lincoln," Obama said the Republicans weren't exactly appealing to — in the Civil War president's words — "the better angels of our nature." He told his audience at a fundraiser in Chicago, "I'm thinking maybe some Lincoln will rub off on them while they're here."
In a wry reference to the heated Republican race, he said, "We've got some guests in Illinois this week. Apparently they have not wrapped up on the other side."
Romney, after Illinois, headed to campaign in Puerto Rico, where he's hoping to win Sunday's primary.
Santorum faces the same obstacles in Illinois that he has in previous contests — a lack of money and campaign organization. But his message that he's the true conservative in the race could resonate strongly in the rural areas of the state. He was spending Friday and Saturday campaigning in some of Illinois' small towns, including Effingham.
Illinois is the highest profile contest of the coming week, and it kicks off a two-week series of five contests before an April lull in the GOP nomination fight that could well stretch into summer. As Obama focuses on the general election, Romney is struggling to clinch the GOP nomination, even though he's well ahead in the fight for delegates to the August GOP national convention. He needs to win 1,144, and is on pace to secure that number by June.
Despite his delegate lead, Romney has recently won only peripheral contests in U.S. territories and he hasn't won a primary since winning six of 10 states on Super Tuesday some 10 days ago. So he's turning to Illinois to right his course in a state that's being seriously contested only by Santorum and him. The resumption of voting in the upper Midwestern states, with Wisconsin following close behind Illinois on April 3, could be pivotal for the GOP front-runner. Maryland and the District of Columbia also hold primaries on April 3, as the voting enters its fourth month.